Sunday, May 26, 2013

Guest Post: Disney's Sleeping Beauty with Matthew!

Disney’s Sleeping Beauty

or “Why Disney Didn’t Make Another Faerie Tale Movie for Over Thirty Years After This”

Let’s be clear. I’m not going to say that this movie has nothing to offer. I love the animation style, I love the good faeries, and I love the villain. The parts that are good about this movie are incredibly good. The parts that aren’t so good, on the other hand . . . well . . .

Now, to be fair, the original story doesn’t have a lot to offer. Girl is cursed to prick finger and fall into extended sleep, girl does this, is rescued in quite possibly the lamest rescue ever, they live happily ever after. Simple, straightforward, and about as dull as faerie tales ever get. And Disney made a good attempt at making it more interesting. They had a good thing going for a lot of it. But on the whole, they still focused too much on the things that were dull and uninteresting about the original story.

But let’s start at the beginning. We start with our storybook backstory, learning of King Stefan and his wife having a daughter named Aurora. We see the ensuing celebration, and we can already tell that this movie is going to be markedly different from the previous ones. The animation is a little more--for lack of a better word--artsy. Also, this movie draws a lot of inspiration from Tchaikovsky’s ballet adaptation of the story. It uses much of his music, and even a lot of the movements of the characters are very dance like. I think a lot of people found this shift a style a bit off-putting, which might be partly why this movie didn’t do nearly as well, but I really like it. I actually wish they’d taken it a bit further. How fascinating would a nearly silent animated version of this story be?

But I digress. Stefan asks for the three good faeries of the realm, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, to bestow their magical gifts on the child. Flora gives her the gift of beauty, and Fauna gives her the gift of song. (I mean, she’s gotta be able to sing. It’s a Disney movie.) But before Merryweather can give her gift, the shit hits the fan, and the evil faerie, Maleficent, appears in a torrent of green flame.

And, my GOD, but I love Maleficent. She is easily one of the most badass Disney villains ever created. Everything from her name to her outfit to her methods is just absolutely badass. Her motivation is the only thing that’s really lacking, as she still as the same motivation as her story counterpart: she was snubbed at the party. Only where the book faerie kind of lost interest, Maleficent actively tries to find and kill Aurora throughout the movie. But then again, she’s kind of one of those villains who defies motivation. She’s just evil.

So Maleficent does her thing, casts her evil spell, and leaves, and Merryweather does her thing, casts her not-really-terribly-helpful-at-all spell, and the King Stefan decides to solve the problem by burning all the spinning wheels in the kingdom.

The difference, though, is that it doesn’t end there. They don’t just put the sleep spell on her, burn the spinning wheels, and say “Well, that’s that, problem solved!” The three faeries in particular know that they’ve only delayed the problem, that it would be far better for the spell to never occur at all, and that Maleficent wants her dead, and won’t stop pursuing her until she is, one way or another. So, since Maleficent was very specific as to the exact time that Aurora would be pricking her finger, they come up with the bright idea of hiding Aurora in the woods and raising her as a peasant until that day passes. What’s going to keep Maleficent from just cursing her again, I don’t know, but one plot hole at a time.

So, they take her to the woods to live as a peasant, and . . . sixteen years pass. This, to me, is one of the moments when the movie missed a golden opportunity for some solid storytelling. The faeries have to live without magic in order to keep Maleficent from noticing them, and they don’t really know how to function without magic. The King and Queen have just given up their daughter and watching her grow up for sixteen years. And the princess is going to be living as a peasant, completely separated from all civilization and all people outside the three good faeries, while being hunted down by an evil faerie who wants to kill her. Does this situation not seem RIPE with interesting story ideas? But no. We’ll just skip ahead to her sixteenth birthday and pick up the story from there. Yeah, okay.

So, Maleficent has not been entirely idle this whole time. She’s had her little minions looking for the baby for sixteen years. But, as we learn in the next scene, they have literally been looking for a baby for sixteen years, not realizing that in the course of those years, the baby has grown up into lovely young woman with all the personality of a beige shower curtain.

This same woman, renamed Briar Rose to protect her identity, is actually a girl of sixteen at this point, though she doesn’t look like any sixteen year old I’ve ever seen, and the three faeries send her off to pick berries--because that’s what you do when you need distraction in the forest, right? Berries?--while they prepare for her birthday party, which will include the revelation that Briar Rose is actually the Princess Aurora, and she gets to leave the life of seclusion she’s always known and go to a life of having everyone know who she is and be required by law to obey and essentially worship her. That doesn’t sound jarring at all, does it?

What follows is hands down the most unspeakably dull scene in the entire movie, where Aurora does her Disney princess thing and sings and dances with her animal friends, who decide to dress up as a dance partner for her, until a real dance partner shows up! A mysterious man who overheard her singing, and decided to join her in a manner that is NOT AT ALL creepy! It’s just a man watching a girl alone in the woods and then pursuing her affections. No big.

But because Aurora is a complete idiot, she falls in love with this mystery man, and agrees to meet him that night at her cottage. So, not only does she not run away from this man, she tells him where she lives. Stellar. Also, she doesn’t know his name.

Meanwhile, the faeries realize that, after sixteen years, they still can’t cook or sew without the aid of magic. How they’ve managed to raise a small child during that time is anyone’s guess, but they eventually decide to do the party right and use magic for the first time in sixteen years to throw Aurora this party. This scene has some good animation and comedy, as Flora and Merryweather argue over whether the dress should be pink or blue, and subsequently get into a magical fight of color and sparkles that I’m sure is not in any way noticeable to Maleficent’s pet Raven, who is looking for any sign of the lost princess. Except that it totally is.

So. Aurora arrives home. She tells her “aunts” that she’s met a man, they tell her that she’s a princess, is returning home tonight, and is already betrothed to a prince from another kingdom named Philip. So, there’s drama all around, but Aurora’s despair has nothing to do with the fact that she’s about to experience a radical change of lifestyle. No, it’s just because she doesn’t get to meet up with the boy she’s only just met and has fallen in love with.

Meanwhile, the mystery man--who, in a twist of fate that could only come from Disney, IS that same Prince Philip that Aurora is betrothed to--tells his father that he’s fallen in love with a peasant woman. This displeases his father, King Hubert, because Philip has long been betrothed to the Princess Aurora from the neighboring kingdom, who is returning to her parents today, in fact. Philip doesn’t listen, and goes to meet his mystery peasant girl anyway, because TRUE LOVE!!!

Meanwhile, the faeries escort the moping Aurora back to the palace, where she is lured away by Maleficent, and compelled to touch the spindle and fall into the enchanted sleep . . . which kind of begs the question, if Maleficent is powerful enough to make her do whatever she wants, why go through all the business with the curse? Why not just have her throw herself off the highest tower or something? Would’ve been a hell of a lot easier. But oh well. The curse has come to pass, and the faeries put the rest of the kingdom to sleep as well, until the curse can be broken by--what else?--true love’s kiss.

And as it happens, the faeries learn through King Hubert that Prince Philip is the SAME GUY that Aurora fell in love with in the woods! Oh, happy day! Unfortunately, Maleficent gets to him first, tying him up and putting him through probably the most cruel torture ever devised by a Disney villain: instead of killing him, she’s going to keep him alive until he’s an old man, and THEN, she’ll let him go and break Aurora’s curse.

 . . . I mean, damn. Let’s all just sit for a moment and ponder that.

But, the three good faeries come to his rescue, arm him with the SWORD of TRUTH and the SHIELD of VIRTUE (also the PEN of SUBTLETY), and--let’s just be honest here--basically do all the work for him while he could charging through. I mean, on the one hand, I love the fact that three middle aged women are essentially the heroes of the story, but on the other hand, it’s a little disappointing to realize that your SWORD of TRUTH only slew the dragon because the faeries charmed it to do so. Ah, well, still better than just having the wall of thorns give way to the prince without him so much having to hack his way through, I suppose.

Oh, yeah, and Maleficent turns into a dragon. Badass.

Anyway, Maleficent is defeated, Philip enters the palace, breaks the spell with true love’s kiss, everyone wakes up, the prearranged marriage is okay because they fell in love with each other anyway, happily ever after, etc.

This movie has so much incredible potential, and yet falls so short of what it could have been. I won’t say it isn’t an improvement on the original story, because it most certainly is, but that’s not saying a whole lot, and I can see why so many people view this movie as a disappointment.

The checklist:

Have somebody do something? Well, the faeries certainly do. Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather are essentially the heroes of this story. They’re the only real active participants in it, it’s their idea to do more for Aurora than just burn the spinning wheels and hope for the best, and they fight Maleficent in the end. And Maleficent, far from just making a brief appearance at the beginning, is one of the most active characters in the movie, as is often the case with villains. However, the main characters still do very little. Prince Philip does do a little more than his counterpart, as he does actually have to fight his way to the palace to save Aurora. But Aurora is actually, in a way, LESS active. At least in the original story, the princess went exploring when she found the spinning wheel. This Aurora has to be magically compelled. So, seeing as how she’s still the main character of the story, half a point.

Introduce some conflict? Hells yeah! Ultimately, this whole story isn’t so much about the sleeping beauty as it is about the fight between the faeries, and Maleficent’s apparent vendetta against King Stefan and his daughter is so obsessive that it pretty much guarantees conflict. It’s one of the big things that movie’s got going for it.

Give the parents a reason for their stupid: Not really an issue, as Aurora is spirited away from the palace, and the parents are actually there to celebrate her sixteenth birthday. And the reason they didn’t invite Maleficent is obvious. I mean, she’s basically the devil.

Flesh out the world: Check. This is probably what Disney faerie tale adaptations do best. They remove the ambiguity of setting that’s natural for faerie tales and put them in a real life context. There’s still some ambiguity, of course, but I appreciate that there is a definite structure to the story. Two kingdoms with a definite political structure in place, the kings have names, magic exists with faeries, and the love interest is actually given a name other than “Charming.”

As far as an adaptation of a faerie tale, yes, this movie is a vast improvement. However, if you’re interested in how I think it could have been done better, well . . . read my review of Tangled.

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